When Su Mathews Hale was asked to list great women in the field of design, she responded with an answer on a postcard. Literally.
The expert designer crafted a postcard with a list of names of more than 100 great women leaders in her industry. The name of the postcard? Move Over Mad Men.
Mathews, a senior partner at the highly regarded brand strategy and design firm Lippincott, had been attending a leadership retreat listening to a speaker that presented a photo collage of 12 great designers. These greats? All men.
“I looked around the room, I thought ‘does anyone think of this as weird—just men?’” she still remembers.
Mathews says she approached the speaker after the event and suggested he include a female designer in his photo collage of leaders in future presentations. His response was unexpected.
“He said to me, ‘well, why don’t you send me a list of who that might be,’” recalled Mathews. “I was just shocked because I thought, ‘I need to send you a list? Really? I need to send you a list of people?’”
Mathews mailed her postcard with this list.
While many people take the phrase “answer on a postcard” to mean a brief opinion, her response has turned out to be anything but short. What started as a clever gesture to contest one person’s point-of-view, has evolved into a long-term mission to challenge the status quo for women in the world of design and beyond.
For the seasoned designer, now with more than two decades of experience to her name, that leadership retreat was not the first time women had been overlooked. She says many people still only think of men when asked to name some of the greatest designers.
“They’ll list ten men easily and then go blank when you ask them, ‘well, what about women?’ and then they’ll be able to point to two or three,” Mathews says.
Leadership trends in the design world, which are similar to other career fields, give weight to Mathew’s experience. More than 50 percent of people working in the design and graphics arena are women. However, only 3 percent of women are creative directors, the most senior roles in the field.
In her career, Mathews has climbed the ranks in leadership. She became a senior partner at Lippincott just two years after moving to the firm as a partner. Before moving to Lippincott, Mathews worked as an associate partner at Pentagram Design. Over the years, she’s been the driving force in developing brand identities for household names like eBay, Hershey’s, Liz Claiborne, Samsung, and Walmart, just to name a few.
Mathews says some of her favorite work has come from partnering with Hyatt. Over the years, she’s helped the hotel giant launch brands including Hyatt Place, Andaz, Hyatt House, and the recently unveiled Hyatt Centric.
Beyond crafting identities for big-name brands, Mathews has emerged as a leader for the design community itself. She is currently serving as president-elect for AIGA, the professional association of design. Once Mathews begins her two-year term later this year, she’ll be only the fifth female president in the association’s history.
Using her leadership position, Mathews is challenging the status quo, and blazing a trail for more women to occupy senior positions. In early 2014, alongside designer and fellow AIGA board member Deborah Adler, she officially launched a Women’s Leadership Initiative. Both women co-chair this initiative.
While the initiative focuses on women in design, Mathews stresses that this project isn’t about creating a “poor us, poor women” dialogue or a “man-hating club.” The chief mission of the initiative is to encourage and celebrate women’s achievements in design, as well as to cultivate awareness of gender-related issues, and to help designers connect with others, both in the industry and beyond.
One gender-related issue that she references includes the frequently mentioned balancing act between family life and a career. Mathews recently became a mother, and while she says it’s easier to juggle family needs with her work thanks to the flexibility of a senior role, she acknowledges that striking this balance may not be as easy for other women in the field.
To celebrate the initiative, other colleagues were encouraged to design their own postcards to reflect their vision of the women’s leadership mission. The postcards were printed for the initiative’s first symposium in the fall of last year.
While the initiative is still relatively new, Mathews says she has already seen success in raising awareness about the lack of women and diversity present in influential roles within the design world.
“I think the women’s leadership initiative has really been instrumental in getting people thinking about [diversity] more, and looking for diversity for judges in design competitions, and looking for diversity in panels and speakers,” she says. “A lot of people have come to me and said it’s because of the awareness this initiative has started to build, so we’re pretty proud of that.”
Her story and leadership inspires others, including her colleagues at Lippincott.
“I think that she has really been a voice that people can relate to by working her way up through all the different positions to the leadership role that she’s in, and being confident to say that women should play a bigger role in this industry,” said Alissa Tribelli, a partner at Lippincott.
Tribelli says she joined Lippincott as an intern around the same time Mathews came on board as a partner. During the last decade, Tribelli says Mathews has led by example, and shown a commitment to nurturing both people and their talents.
“Su is an extraordinarily talented designer, and also very smart,” Tribelli says.
“When she leads projects, she does so with a certain amount of clarity around the vision, and also with a leadership style that really allows members of the team to speak their own voice and really take part in the creative aspiration.”
While Mathews encourages young designers to find strong mentors and a good work environment, it’s finding the voice, as Tribelli described, which stands out in her advice. Mathews stresses that women don’t need to copy others, be loud, or “act more like a man” to be a leader.
“There’s so many brave women leaders out there that I know who are incredibly soft spoken and reserved, and they hold incredible presence in a room,” Mathews says.
During the “Move Over Mad Men” mini-mentorship session co-hosted with Adler to launch the initiative last year, Mathews herself concisely summed up the voice she brings to the table.
“I’m never the loudest or most outspoken, but I express my ideas with confidence, and I always share my opinions,” she says. “Plus, I’ve been told I kick ass in four-inch heels.”
While Mathews admits she’s not the loudest person, from the volume of her actions it’s clear: someone may need to move over.
This article was originally published byStrategist
To commemorate the launch of the AIGA Women Lead Initiative in 2014, members and colleagues of the Women Lead Steering Committee
designed postcards representing their vision of the initiative's
mission: to celebrate and foster women's achievements in design.
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